Philip Pennywit (1793–1868)

Philip Pennywit was a pioneering riverboat captain who was among the earliest to offer regular service along the Arkansas River and the first to ascend the White River as far as Batesville (Independence County).

Philip (sometimes spelled Phillip) Pennywit was born in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1793 and moved west while a young man. He was employed on keelboats that would float down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, hauling cargo between Cincinnati, Ohio, and New Orleans, Louisiana, and then hauling the boats back upriver by using poles and ropes.

In 1818, Pennywit was credited with building the first steamboat ever constructed in Cincinnati; he named the vessel after that city. Ten years later, as captain of the Facility, he reached Little Rock (Pulaski County) on January 12, 1848, and established the first regular service on the Arkansas River, heading as far west as Cantonment Gibson in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) when fluctuating water levels allowed.

In 1831, now operating the steamboat Waverly, Pennywit expanded his services into the White River, and on January 3 he was the first to ascend the river as far as Batesville, “laden with merchandize [sic] for two houses in this place, and some goods destined for the Big North Fork above this place.” A correspondent to the Arkansas Times and Advocate wrote that “much credit is due to the enterprize [sic] of Capt. P. in thus opening new resources, and giving a fresh impetus to the enterprize [sic] and industry of the citizens of that part of our Territory.”

By 1833, Pennywit was the master of the Arkansas, “of light draft, carries about 120 tons, runs fast,” which he apparently acquired from H. W. Smith, who had been the clerk on the Waverly. He ran the Neosho beginning in 1834, selling it two years later to Captain Thomas Tunstall, who was the owner when it hit a snag and sank in 1837 with one fatality.

By 1838, Pennywit, of whom an advertisement in the Weekly Arkansas Gazette stated: “the experience and gentlemanly deportment of Capt. Pennywit are too well known to require any encomium,” was running the Little Rock, which had “an upper cabin, state-rooms, and every convenience to render passengers comfortable,” on the Arkansas River route. In the fall of 1841, he owned “the new and splendid steamer Arkansas,” which was “built upon the most improved model, light draught, 250 tons burthen, engines entirely new.” On March 29, 1844, the steamboat hit a stump near Lewisburg (Conway County) on the Arkansas River and sank while carrying 500 bales of cotton and 800 sacks of corn; one man died in the accident. A Van Buren (Crawford County) newspaper wrote that “the river rose a short time after the ‘Arkansas’ sunk, and now, nothing of her is visible but the chimneys.” The Arkansas Gazette noted that “Capt. Pennywit…has lost several fine boats while engaged in the navigation of the Arkansas; but his energy seems always to rise with his misfortunes.”

Pennywit’s next Arkansas River steamboats were the Arkansas No. 4, a 281-ton sidewheel paddleboat built at Cincinnati in late 1844 and “intended expressly for this trade, and…complete in every department,” and the Arkansas No. 5, a 162-ton sidewheel paddleboat constructed at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1845, “which…draws only 20 inches of water. This boat he [Pennywit] intends to command himself and run upon this river solely.” The Arkansas No. 5 was rammed by the steamer Champion on November 28, 1845, near Natchez, Mississippi, and sunk, but it was raised and returned to service. Both boats apparently worked in tandem for a time, as an 1846 advertisement sought “30 able-bodied Negro men, for hands on the Steamers Arkansas No. 4 and No. 5, for which $15 per month will be paid.”

Pennywit, who had established a partnership in a wholesale grocery business in Van Buren in 1843, retired from the riverboat business in 1847 and became a businessman, being involved in three companies in Van Buren and Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and establishing a gristmill at Van Buren. He maintained an interest in steamboats, however, and in 1859 traveled to Cincinnati with another retired captain to superintend construction of the steamer 35th Parallel, which would be owned by the citizens of Van Buren; ten years earlier, he had arranged, with Captain Robert Beatty, for the construction of a steamboat that was named the Philip Pennywit.

A lifelong bachelor, Pennywit lived with the family of his business partner, Charles G. Scott, and when they moved to Little Rock in 1862 after the Civil War broke out, he went with them. In early 1866, he suffered a paralyzing illness that left him an invalid until his death on January 9, 1868. A eulogy in the Gazette stated that “the announcement of his death will carry sorrow to many a heart in every part of the land. His name is inseparably interwoven with the history of navigation on the Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, and throughout the entire west he had thousands of warm, devoted friends. Those who knew him best loved him most.”

Pennywit’s remains were taken to Van Buren, where he is buried in the John Drennen family plot in Fairview Cemetery.

For additional information:
Arkansas Intelligencer, June 7, 1845, p. 2, col. 2.

Arkansas Times and Advocate, January 19, 1831, p. 3, col. 1.

Brown, Mattie. “River Transportation in Arkansas, 1819–1890.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 1 (Winter 1872): 342–354.

“CPT Phillip Pennywit.” Find a Grave. (accessed November 29, 2023).

Eno, Clara B. History of Crawford County, Arkansas. Van Buren, AR: The Press-Argus, 1950.

Huddleston, Duane, Sammie Cantrell Rose, and Pat Wood. Steamboats and Ferries on the White River: A Heritage Revisited. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.

“Loss of the Arkansas No. 5.” Arkansas Intelligencer, December 20, 1845, p. 2.

“Loss of the Steamer Arkansas.” True Democrat, April 3, 1844, p. 2.

“The New and Splendid Steamer Arkansas.” Advertisement, Weekly Arkansas Gazette, January 5, 1842, p. 1.

“New Steamer Arkansas No. 4.” Advertisement, Arkansas Intelligencer, November 2, 1844, p. 2.

“Obituary.” Weekly Arkansas Gazette, January 14, 1868, p. 3.

“Scott, White, & Co.” Advertisement, Arkansas Intelligencer, August 5, 1843, p. 4, col. 4.

“The Steamboat Arkansas Sunk.” Van Buren Arkansas Intelligencer, April 6, 1844, p. 2.

“Steam-boat Little Rock.” Advertisement, Weekly Arkansas Gazette, January 10, 1838, p. 1.

“Wanted to Hire.” Advertisement, Van Buren Arkansas Intelligencer, August 28, 1846, p. 3.

Weekly Arkansas Gazette, February 3, 1845, p. 2, col. 1.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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